Tate: Getting to the root of the problem
Pardon me if you’ve drawn conclusions here that much of Illinois’ football problem is derived from enrollment limitations.
That’s just one factor among many. Any program with a 20-year Big Ten record of 51-108 has displayed multiple shortcomings.
A reminder of how far it has sunk came out this week with a 2015 scheduling announcement of Kent State, Western Illiois and Middle Tennessee State. This is probably appropriate, but fans would rather see Cincinnati or Washington, or maybe Missouri or Arizona State.
Arizona State is mentioned because, one year after defeating the Sun Devils 17-14 in 2011, a confused UI defense gave up 45 points in the desert, a harbinger of things to come last season. The fact that six members of that starting Illini defense have been bouncing around current NFL camps is an indication that, for whatever reason, there was more talent there than the new staff could bring out.
So coaching, as with enrollment limits, is high on a list that includes resources, tradition, sanctions and continuity, to name a few.
Enrollment rules have drawn special attention here because of the waterfall of opinions in this educational setting.
Let’s clear up one point. Whether it’s Stanford or Michigan or whoever, don’t confuse an institution’s academic standards, which may be extremely high, with a willingness to open the gates for a core of marginal athletes, singers or actors as special admits.
The UI admissions office judges each case and permits enrollment of some borderline student-athletes who “have a good chance to succeed.” These are students who would not otherwise be accepted.
But there is a gap between those athletes who are Clearinghouse-qualified and those accepted by the UI. Most Division I schools operate strictly off the Clearinghouse list.
Repeating, an institution with an incredibly high ranking — which may be based in great part on postgraduate standing — may have a back door for a number of shaky students.
Here is Michigan, with extraordinary status in law, business and accounting, and as Jim Harbaugh noted about his alma mater, “Michigan has a way of steering (marginal athletes) into courses in sports communication.”
No small part of Michigan’s brand — and it’s standing with alumni — stems from its football success.
And then there’s the junior college situation where UI coach Tim Beckman submitted more than 100 for consideration, only to see the majority declined. Illinois is clearly handicapped in this regard.
Poles apart is Kansas State, which built its football revival around jucos. Coach Bill Snyder attracted 20 football transfers in 2008 and fielded 29 jucos on last year’s team. It is noteworthy that Bruce Weber can now recruit basketball players he couldn’t at Illinois, no small consideration with so many academically marginal candidates.
It’s good news that this JC situation will soon be more balanced due to incoming national rules requiring all juco transfers to have 2.5 GPAs.
Money isn’t everything. Northern Illinois, with athletic revenue of $23 million, went to the Orange Bowl last season. But there is nevertheless a relationship between dollars and success.
Texas leads the nation with 2012 revenue of $163 million, offering a partial explanation why the Longhorns could attract the UI’s successful track coach, Tonja Buford-Bailey, and her two best runners. The Longhorns have money running out of their ears.
Behind Texas are Ohio State ($142 million) and Michigan ($140 million), heading a lineup of 13 schools over $100 million.
Illinois is listed among two-dozen or so that have “turned a profit over time (2006-11),” but is ranked 29th overall and ninth among Big Ten schools at $78 million, just ahead of Indiana and Purdue. First-game opponent Southern Illinois shows $20 million, roughly two-thirds of that listed as subsidy.
The majority of Big Ten schools are operating at a faster pace income-wise than Illinois.
By all means, the Slush Fund, which led to the firing of coaches and suspension of star players in 1967, shouldn’t matter today. And it wouldn’t if Illinois hadn’t repeatedly gotten sideways with NCAA sleuths (and internally), all the way up through the lengthy Deon Thomas case that carried into the 1990s ... 15-plus years of off-and-on troubles.
John Mackovic, who led the Illini to four straight bowls, was weighed down by the complicated Thomas investigation in his role as athletic director. When an offer came from Texas, he happily dropped heavy administrative duties to become strictly a football coach again.
The decision to promote Mackovic’s defensive coordinator, Lou Tepper, in 1992 was the first of several questionable hirings as the UI seemed unwilling to become involved in the outlandish salaries that top coaches are drawing from the marketplace. The $1.6 million for Beckman ranks eighth on the 2012 Big Ten list, headed by Ohio State’s Urban Meyer at $4.3 million (not counting bonuses). Nick Saban’s income at Alabama starts at $5.4 million.
In a 10-year stretch, Illinois has had three head coaches, six different arrangements in calling offensive plays, seven offensive line coaches (including one who left before any games) and five setups for running the defense. If you’re confused, Illinois has tried co-coordinators for both offense and defense.
At this time, no football staffer has yet been here two years, a fact that creates obvious problems on the recruiting trail. The state’s high school coaches are repeatedly opening their doors to new Illini staffers.
As a contrast, Jerry Kill hasn’t been at Minnesota long, but his assistants have stuck closely to him. The coordinators, Tracy Claeys and Matt Limegrover, joined him in 1995 and 1999, and several others have been with him a decade or more. That kind of continuity has value, even if it’s not all at the same school.
In analyzing the problem, we see how these multiple problems impact modern tradition.
Athletes in their late teens and their fathers have seen too many false signals, too many slides back into mediocrity.
This is no recent phenomenon. In the last 76 years, Illinois has finished over .500 in the regular season 28 times, somewhat more than one-third.
Opportunity knocked during the heady regimes of Mike White and Mackovic. But when the modern boat sailed, Donna Shalala (chancellor, 1988-93) and Barry Alvarez pushed Wisconsin up the gangplank, and Illinois was left standing on the dock. The Badgers aren’t concerned that they don’t field a baseball team in the frigid north. They’re pleasing fans with basketball and football successes to the tune of plus-$103 million in revenue. Once a doormat, they’ll have approximately 80,000 fans jumping around at their home opener with UMass, almost twice the likely turnstile count here.
It’s been done before
Credit Wisconsin with rising from the depths. The Badgers enjoyed one .500-or-better Big Ten record from 1965 through 1980, and were dead last in 1986-87-88-90.
So, yes, respectability can be achieved. The Badgers have done it. Michigan State is doing it. Iowa continues to draw despite program slippage. Northwestern has built expectations around a dynamic coach, Pat Fitzgerald. Penn State, entering the second year of a four-year bowl ban, has taken steps (8-4 last year) to prove doubters wrong. Nebraska embarks again as a Top 25 team.
And that’s part of the UI’s problem. So many other Big Ten members are meeting bowl standards and attracting top players to their winning programs.
Without going deep into recruiting, we now see a caste system in which the elite athletes tend to migrate to the winning programs.
Illinois has tumbled down the totem pole. When the nation’s Top 100 prospects announce their five official visits, Illinois is seldom involved. The same holds true for the next 100, and the 100 after that. The UI is obliged to dip into a shallower pool. Illinois landed one of the Top 10 in-state players last year (freshman Aaron Bailey) and, with most of the state’s seniors now committed, hasn’t yet hit in that special group.
To cash in around Lake Michigan, Illinois must win. And there you have it, the old chicken-egg syndrome.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.